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The Lincoln Highway

A Novel

by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles X
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
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    Oct 2021, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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In Towles' third novel — a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana — brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York.

Things look bleak for Emmett Watson in June of 1954. The 18-year-old has just been released from a boys' detention center in Kansas, where he served a little over a year for his role in an accidental death. When the warden drops him back at the family farm in Nebraska, Emmett learns that the loan on the property was recalled after his father died. He and his eight-year-old brother, Billy, will soon be homeless, with the bank giving them three weeks to clear out.

Luckily, Emmett still has his pride and joy, his 1948 Studebaker (see Beyond the Book), as well as a cash inheritance from his father. Grateful for the excuse to get away from Nebraska, he intends to light out for Texas to flip houses. Billy has another idea: taking the continent-spanning Lincoln Highway to find their mother in San Francisco — the last place she mailed a postcard from after she disappeared eight years ago. However, the brothers soon discover that Duchess and Woolly, teens from the detention center, escaped and stowed away in the warden's car to the Watson farm. They propose heading east to Woolly's wealthy family's upstate New York getaway to collect his hidden $150,000 trust fund and split it four ways.

Like all the best-laid plans, this one goes awry through a variety of mishaps and tricks; Duchess and Woolly take off in the Studebaker, and Emmett and Billy have to hop the Sunset East train to head them off in New York City. The novel is set over just 10 days, with its chapters counting down from 10 to 1. Billy's favorite book, Professor Abacus Abernathe's Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers, includes tales of figures in history and legend, and he imagines their own adventures rivaling those of the Three Musketeers or Homer's heroes. Indeed, we meet a character called Ulysses — who fought in World War II and has been separated from his wife and child ever since — and other plot points seem to be inspired by The Odyssey.

The Lincoln Highway features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes — he takes after his father, a roguish traveling actor who abandoned him at an orphanage. Woolly is a dozy, melancholy young man, described as being "not all there" or "away with the fairies."

However, Emmett is a dull protagonist; with little inner life, he's always outshone by the supporting cast. The Watsons' Nebraska neighbor, Sally, has always been sweet on Emmett. It's disappointing that she, as one of just two main female characters — and one of the two first-person narrators (Duchess is the other) whose testimonies are interspersed with the third-person omniscient narration of the rest of the novel — plays such a minor role.

A danger with an episodic narrative like this one is that random events and encounters pile up but don't do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet, and there were later points, too, where the book seemed endless (I felt the same about A Gentleman in Moscow). Despite the condensed timeframe here, it's a meandering story that can try one's patience.

Other readers, no doubt, will appreciate the old-fashioned American road trip vibe. There is something appealing about the conjunction of bravery and mischief, and it's reassuring how the novel comes full circle and promises further adventures ahead. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles' fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review will run in the November 17, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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